How to Not Feel Useless When Someone You Love Is Upset

Get the little things right.

Max Phillips
Oct 16, 2020 · 4 min read
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

What is one of the only things worse than seeing someone you care about upset? Feeling unable to help.

The other week, my mum got upset about the struggles she is going through. I offered the best advice I could but ultimately felt like I wasn’t doing anything worthwhile.

When someone is struggling, they most likely don’t want much from you other than a reassuring hug and an agreeing tone. But sometimes, it’s hard to remember that.

So, here are some ways you can feel useful when someone is upset.

Only Speak About What You Know

In the past, I’ve been a bit dumbfounded when someone starts crying in front of me. So, I offer a variety of solutions I’ve quickly cobbled together. However, when someone is in floods of tears, they probably don’t particularly want to hear 17 convoluted ways to feel better. They want you to listen.

More often than not, you’ll find yourself scrambling to find the ‘right’ answer when there probably isn’t one for the time being.

My mum was stressing out about her financial and career problems — stuff that is way out of my areas of expertise. All I could do was put an arm around her.

I found myself wishing I had something wise to say. I didn’t. Instead, I drew from my experiences, telling her she needs to free up her already packed schedule for what she wants to do, instead of what she is ‘supposed’ to do.

Critically, you need to remember that not everyone’s situation is exactly the same as yours. For example, just because you’ve experienced anxiety and recovered, it doesn’t mean you know how they are feeling because they also have anxiety. If anything, it might make things worse as you’re generalising their problems. Remember to be sensitive.

Follow Up With Them

When my mum was upset, she kept saying “sorry,” as if her emotions were a burden.

Part of me thinks this is because she assumed I had things to do, so didn’t want to keep me for too long. All of this served to make me feel a bit useless.

I saw her the next day, asked her how she was, and she seemed much more chipper. It filled me with joy.

Going out of your way to check if someone has fully recovered will highlight your purpose to them, and you won’t feel useless. You aren’t telling them what they need to hear, instead you’re showing that you’ve been thinking about and understanding them. Down the line, they won’t feel as if they are burdening you with their troubles, as you’ve shown how much you care.

They Just Want You to Listen

I could tell something was wrong as my mum said “I need to talk to you about something” in a rather serious tone. I was driving at the time, and suggested we talk right away. She declined.

I realise now she wanted my full, undivided attention. I couldn’t give that if I was concentrating on something else.

When we got home, I didn’t speak for a good five minutes. The less I spoke, the more she did.

According to Psychology Today, research suggests only 10% of us are effective listeners. Writing on Forbes, Christina Holbrook McEntee suggests trying a new tactic to become a better listener:

‘Try listening for just one day to someone you are close to: your husband or wife, child or parent. Try really listening to a difficult business colleague or client. And when they finish, don’t let your self-assertion jump in with “yes, but…..”. Get rid of the word “but” altogether, it only serves to negate everything the person you are listening to has just said. Instead, if you do say anything, try asking “What else?”

That’s the key. You feel useless because you try to cure them immediately. Life isn’t like that. People’s moods ebb and flow, and while you may succeed in changing their perspective now, they might burst into floods of tears as soon as you leave.

People want to be reassured that they have a reason to feel the way they do and told when they’re wrong — even if they don’t appreciate it at the time. By nodding, listening and making reassuring sounds, you’re validating their feelings.


The critical thing to remember — while you may feel useless, you aren’t. Your loved one is most likely incredibly grateful you’re trying to help, they’re just emotionally preoccupied.

To feel useful, think of yourself as an emotional pillow. As they’re laying their thoughts and feelings into you, they’re coming to terms with what’s happened. Once you’ve absorbed it, then become more active and offer your opinion. Stick to what you know, follow-up. Above all, listen.

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier.

Thanks to Anangsha Alammyan, Sira M., Li Charmaine Anne, and Eva Keiffenheim

Max Phillips

Written by

Words in Forge, Debugger, Better Humans, & more. | A 23-year-old writing about self-improvement that interests me. | Get in touch ->

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier. Join a community of storytellers documenting the climb to happiness and fulfillment.

Max Phillips

Written by

Words in Forge, Debugger, Better Humans, & more. | A 23-year-old writing about self-improvement that interests me. | Get in touch ->

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier. Join a community of storytellers documenting the climb to happiness and fulfillment.

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